EXPANDING THE COMMONS

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Backwater Bay enthusiastically champions the radical expansion of “the commons” –collectively held and shared spaces, lands, water, services, programs, institutions, infrastructure, and collective resources/knowledge. We fight efforts to shrink, compromise, restrict, commodify, carve up, enclose, or privatize such elements necessary to the dignity and well-being of all.

About the Phrase “The Commons”

Backwater Bay uses this term until a better one emerges. We don’t associate it entirely with an English or Western European understanding of the term that would reinforce colonial ideas and conceptions of property and individual rights. Rather, we recognize it as an age-old concept embodying the idea of “what people share” in order to live with dignity, enjoying individual and collective well-being.  Indigenous, Aboriginal, and other peoples throughout the world have long histories of sharing things of value that belong to everyone: clean air and water, open spaces and wilderness areas, flora and fauna, and more.

Here, “the commons” also includes infrastructure, ranging from pathways and roads to water and energy systems to transportation,  education, and communication. It includes health care and housing. And it includes collective knowledge and well-being. This means it addresses collective, not only individual, claims to justice. The concept must favor the creation of strong  community accountability practices for both right use and violations of agreements or harms inflicted on others. And it must assume that varied forms of societal and community governance are amenable to the care and sustainability of places, resources, and services held and shared in common.

This concept of the commons runs counter to laws and legal practice in the US that favor partition, privatization, and enclosure of once public or commonly held spaces. One way of understanding “enclosure” is this: it transforms the concept of “the public good” – the ways in which people in communities share and care/provide mutual aid for one another – into private property, for only the benefit of a few. It narrows the means of access to once public spaces, services, and resources. Indeed, enclosure can even maintain the fiction of “public” services or resources by transferring ownership and administration of once-publicly held institutions and agencies to private interests. This is a common feature of neoliberalism.

Through enclosure, a society increasingly narrows avenues for collective claims to justice, and eventually refusing any such claims. Indeed, it erases any possibility of justice or meaningful accountability for injury or wrongdoing inflicted as a result of being a property owner and doing business in harmful ways – for example, industrial pollution and destruction of ecologies. Privately operated schools can seldom be held publicly accountable in any meaningful way for wrongdoing, corruption, or discrimination that otherwise might be illegal.

For Backwater Bay, “enclosure” means dismantling collectively utilized /shared spaces, resources, services, and biota by various means of carving up the commons and restricting ownership and access only to certain people, almost always for social or economic profit. At each step of enclosure, poor/homeless/marginalized peoples, especially black, brown, and Indigenous communities, are displaced, more intensively criminalized, and disenfranchised.

(If you have suggestions for a better phrase than “the commons,” please use the contact form on this site to send it along. If we use it or ask for reactions to it, we will ask for your permission to credit you with the suggestion before posting.)  

“The Commons” Touches Many Aspects of our Lives

Contemporary examples of enclosure are not limited to but include: gentrification; the privatization of public education through charter schools, voucher programs, and corporate/Big Money influence; the privatization and degradation of public water systems; transformation of  public lands and designated wilderness areas into privatized arenas for profit-based resource extraction; the promotion of Big Ag and agricultural monoculture over sustainable biodiversity and small farms; deregulation of business and industry; the ongoing efforts to eviscerate the Americans with Disabilities Act, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare; and more.

We Must Dismantle, Not Reinforce, Colonial/Individual/Commodified Understandings of “The Commons”

Sometimes people want to think that “the commons” means “I get to take everything I want, and as much of it as I want, for free or on the cheap and do anything I want with it, including selling it in original or altered forms to others.”

No.

For one thing, there’s more than one societal/cultural conception of “the commons.” For example, “the commons” doesn’t mean that non-Indigenous people should be able to trample Indigenous sovereignty or access to sacred sites, knowledge, practices, and traditions. It doesn’t mean that all creative work should be available for free without regard to the livelihood of the writers, poets, artists, musicians, performers, and  filmmakers who depend on income from their work.

It means that an integrity of relationship  – racial, gendered, disability-related, economic, ecological, and cultural – must be created, strengthened, sustainably maintained for those things held in common and shared that are necessary to both individual and collective well-being.  These relationships must be crafted within an ethical and sustainable framework. No one gets to take so much that they deprive or do harm to others or replicate colonial/white nationalist/racial capitalist practices.

What constitutes harm? In what areas will we agree or disagree? Backwater Bay has its own experience, reflected in The Backwater Bay Ethos found on the Visitor’s Guide page of this site. That work, and the effort to live fully into our vision, is ongoing.

What’s happening – or could be happening – to protect and expand the commons in your area?

SHARING & EXPANDING THE COMMONS:

Is it possible to decolonize the Commons? An interview with Jane Anderson of Local Contexts, by Jennie Rose Halperin, Creative Commons, January 30, 2019

NYU professor and legal scholar Jane Anderson discusses the collaborative project Local Contexts, “an initiative to support Native, First Nations, Aboriginal, Inuit, Metis and Indigenous communities in the management of their intellectual property and cultural heritage specifically within the digital environment.”

Local Contexts

Local Contexts is an initiative to support Native, First Nations, Aboriginal, and Indigenous communities in the management of their intellectual property and cultural heritage specifically within the digital environment. Local Contexts provides legal, extra-legal, and educational strategies for navigating copyright law and the public domain status of this valuable cultural heritage. By providing strategic resources and practical solutions, Local Contexts and its partners are working towards a new paradigm of rights and responsibilities that recognizes the inherent sovereignty that Indigenous communities have over their cultural heritage.

Indigenous Peoples and the Commons 2006, by Preston Hardison. November 20, 2006

The author, a natural resources and treaty rights policy analyst for the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, shares his personal views here and is not speaking for other Indigenous peoples.

Acknowledging the importance of the commons movement, Hardison asks us to also consider and address some troubling aspects of the movement as it stands. Pointing out that many different commons exist – there is no universal, agreed-upon meaning or iteration of “the commons” – advocates “may be creating some injustices of its own, in ways that parallel problems of enclosure.” In particular, the commons movement inadequately takes into account the rights and aspirations of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Indigenous Domain: Pilgrims, Permaculture and Perl, by Joline Blais. 2006

This important analysis speaks to the ways in which (predominantly white)  champions of a digital “free resources” commons culture can ultimately reinforce “the intellectual property regime at the base of colonial cultures.” The author examines the “far more radical ground” reflected in “parallel movements in indigenous culture, permaculture, and digital culture” that emphasizes “creativity and kinship.”  

The Enclosure of the Commons, by Vandana Shiva. October 4, 2009

The author, a scientist and global activist, argues that for indigenous communities, biodiversity has always been a local, commonly shared resource on which they have been dependent for their livelihood. The introduction of new “intellectual property laws” under global trade agreements serves as another colonial  measure to “enclose” the commons and “bring them under a regime of private property and patents for the benefit of corporations.”

Arguing that the structure of Western, particularly US concepts of rights and property, create a narrow and non-sustainable framework for law and policy, Shiva asserts that it is the colonial framework that needs changing, not the collective nature of rights of entire communities.

All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, ed. Jay Walljasper, with an introduction by Bill McKibben. (The New Press, 2010).

This anthology serves, in many respects, as a useful introduction to the broad possibilities encompassed in the phrase “the commons,” featuring voices from throughout the US and around the world. The voices are not as representative as we would hope, in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, and this is more of a marketplace of ideas rather than a collection with a clear anti-colonial perspective. Pay particular attention to essays by Winona LaDuke, Paula Garcia, and others whose voices and histories openly challenge colonial constructs.

Backwater Bay enthusiastically champions the radical expansion of “the commons” –collectively held and shared spaces, lands, water, services, programs, institutions, infrastructure, and collective resources/knowledge. We fight efforts to shrink, compromise, restrict, commodify, carve up, enclose, or privatize such elements necessary to the dignity and well-being of all.

 

About the Phrase “The Commons”

Backwater Bay uses this term until a better one emerges. We don’t associate it entirely with an English or Western European understanding of the term that would reinforce colonial ideas and conceptions of property and individual rights. Rather, we recognize it as an age-old concept embodying the idea of “what people share” in order to live with dignity, enjoying individual and collective well-being.  Indigenous, Aboriginal, and other peoples throughout the world have long histories of sharing things of value that belong to everyone: clean air and water, open spaces and wilderness areas, flora and fauna, and more.

Here, “the commons” also includes infrastructure, ranging from pathways and roads to water and energy systems to transportation,  education, and communication. It includes health care and housing. And it includes collective knowledge and well-being. This means it addresses collective, not only individual, claims to justice. The concept must favor the creation of strong  community accountability practices for both right use and violations of agreements or harms inflicted on others. And it must assume that varied forms of societal and community governance are amenable to the care and sustainability of places, resources, and services held and shared in common.

This concept of the commons runs counter to laws and legal practice in the US that favor partition, privatization, and enclosure of once public or commonly held spaces. One way of understanding “enclosure” is this: it transforms the concept of “the public good” – the ways in which people in communities share and care/provide mutual aid for one another – into private property, for only the benefit of a few. It narrows the means of access to once public spaces, services, and resources. Indeed, enclosure can even maintain the fiction of “public” services or resources by transferring ownership and administration of once-publicly held institutions and agencies to private interests. This is a common feature of neoliberalism.

Through enclosure, a society increasingly narrows avenues for collective claims to justice, and eventually refusing any such claims. Indeed, it erases any possibility of justice or meaningful accountability for injury or wrongdoing inflicted as a result of being a property owner and doing business in harmful ways – for example, industrial pollution and destruction of ecologies. Privately operated schools can seldom be held publicly accountable in any meaningful way for wrongdoing, corruption, or discrimination that otherwise might be illegal.

For Backwater Bay, “enclosure” means dismantling collectively utilized /shared spaces, resources, services, and biota by various means of carving up the commons and restricting ownership and access only to certain people, almost always for social or economic profit. At each step of enclosure, poor/homeless/marginalized peoples, especially black, brown, and Indigenous communities, are displaced, more intensively criminalized, and disenfranchised.

(If you have suggestions for a better phrase than “the commons,” please use the contact form on this site to send it along. If we use it or ask for reactions to it, we will ask for your permission to credit you with the suggestion before posting.)  

 

“The Commons” Touches Many Aspects of our Lives

Contemporary examples of enclosure are not limited to but include: gentrification; the privatization of public education through charter schools, voucher programs, and corporate/Big Money influence; the privatization and degradation of public water systems; transformation of  public lands and designated wilderness areas into privatized arenas for profit-based resource extraction; the promotion of Big Ag and agricultural monoculture over sustainable biodiversity and small farms; deregulation of business and industry; the ongoing efforts to eviscerate the Americans with Disabilities Act, Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare; and more.

 

We Must Dismantle, Not Reinforce, Colonial/Individual/Commodified Understandings of “The Commons”

Sometimes people want to think that “the commons” means “I get to take everything I want, and as much of it as I want, for free or on the cheap and do anything I want with it, including selling it in original or altered forms to others.”

No.

For one thing, there’s more than one societal/cultural conception of “the commons.” For example, “the commons” doesn’t mean that non-Indigenous people should be able to trample Indigenous sovereignty or access to sacred sites, knowledge, practices, and traditions. It doesn’t mean that all creative work should be available for free without regard to the livelihood of the writers, poets, artists, musicians, performers, and  filmmakers who depend on income from their work.

It means that an integrity of relationship  – racial, gendered, disability-related, economic, ecological, and cultural – must be created, strengthened, sustainably maintained for those things held in common and shared that are necessary to both individual and collective well-being.  These relationships must be crafted within an ethical and sustainable framework. No one gets to take so much that they deprive or do harm to others or replicate colonial/white nationalist/racial capitalist practices.

What constitutes harm? In what areas will we agree or disagree? Backwater Bay has its own experience, reflected in The Backwater Bay Ethos found on the Visitor’s Guide page of this site. That work, and the effort to live fully into our vision, is ongoing.

What’s happening – or could be happening – to protect and expand the commons in your area?

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